Orfeo amb Clarinet*

October 11, 2009

jose This site has already flagged the extraordinary young clarinetist José Franch-Ballester. If I’m right about his artistry, those of you within reach of Le Poisson Rouge will want to go hear him there on this coming Tuesday. He’s doing a concert with a pianist about whom I hear good things, Adam Neiman, who will also play a Chopin Ballade on his own. Last time I heard Mr. Franch-Ballester, the clarinetist from Valencia did the best Poulenc Sonata (with Anna Polonsky) that I have ever heard. Now he is going to play it with Mr. Neiman — who also, as composer, has contributed the piece that is opening the program, about which he tells me:

The Two Elegies for Clarinet and Piano are actually my own arrangements of my Two Elegies for Voice and Piano which I wrote 10 years ago. The original songs are lyric, mystical, and powerful vocalises, and I maintained the simplicity of the original vocal line while making it truly idiomatic for the clarinet. Both works are emotional and spiritual journeys captured in sound, and they are very close to my heart.

The concert’s at 7:30 p.m., and here’s the program:

Adam Neiman: Two Elegies for Clarinet and Piano (world premiere)
Chopin: Ballade No. 4
Brahms: Sonata No. 2
Arturo Márquez: Sarabandeo
Poulenc: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Kenji Bunch: Two Pieces from Cookbook

* That’s Valencian for Orpheus with Clarinet.


It is a perennial accusation made against worshipers that they make their gods in their own image. I’m on record below as being a big fan of Le Poisson Rouge, but in today’s New York Times we are told

So you can imagine how gratified the composer [Arnold Schoenberg] would have been to hear this fresh, keenly dramatic account of “Pierrot Lunaire” presented at an informal club for an eager and receptive audience.

Whoa there.

Schoenberg famously put on his ideal concerts for years in Vienna. These were notoriously ernst affairs. Would the man who didn’t even allow applause take to the easy-going Poisson Rouge atmosphere? I think not. Not the man who said, “If it is art, it is not popular. And if it is popular, it is not art.”

Another thing that the chief critic of the Times may be forgetting is that, if Schoenberg had had his way, said critic might not even have been allowed at the Poisson Rouge performance, since Schoenberg customarily posted a sign at the door saying, Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (“Critics are forbidden entry”).


Le Poisson Rouge has been cited here before for its presentations and means of presentation. I’ve now been there for five very different occasions, and last night brought the best of those. In a program also flagged here recently, Alarm Will Sound gave a Derek Bermel evening.

While the music was consistently fine and the performances were of the highest virtuosity, the main point I want to make is one of attitude. I remember, years ago in the New Yorker, the estimable Andrew Porter’s expression of astonishment and pleasure when a chamber musician showed by a smile that he was pleased with a happy turn of phrase that he had just executed. We are not surprised when a member of an early-music group does this, and rock musicians of course have such facial demonstrations as an indispensable part of their stock-in-trade. But conventional “classical” instrumental musicians who aspire to be taken seriously (say, the player in most of your major string quartets or — goodness knows — the white-tie-sporting symphonic musician who dreams of a career in the Berlin Philharmonic) knows that the poker-face is part of the uniform. He’d no more laugh at a humorous phrase in Haydn than he’d wear flip-flops with his tails.

Thus, when the tacit violist in the front row right away reflected in the movement of his body that he was artistically involved in someone else’s playing, it not only increased my own involvement with the performance but it felt a little transgressive, too. But only for a moment. These folks are offering challenging “classical” music as though it’s something to be enjoyed. The fact that they aren’t ashamed to show their own enjoyment in their countenances and body-language gives us permission to imitate their involvement and share in their resulting satisfaction.

May their tribe increase, I say.

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